Back when the Covid-19 health crisis first hit the UK, I speculated on how the virus might change the way we enjoy opera, and by extension all performing arts.
Now, more than nine months later, it’s safe to say that none of us at the time could have predicted that this crisis would still be ongoing. Who would have thought, back in March 2020, that corona would cancel Christmas? That England would be in it’s third lockdown? Or that theatres would be shut again and the performing arts still struggling?
It’s been an incredibly challenging year for performing arts. Trying desperately to stay on top of fast-changing restrictions while remaining open to audiences, in a strictly socially distanced way. Cancelling performance runs rescheduled from spring and summer. Casts unable to rehearse as gathering indoors is banned and then allowed and then banned again.
It’s not over yet, either. It could well be that it’s not until 2022 that theatre – and especially opera – returns to normal. Consider the scale of a performance. There’s costume and set design and creation, scores and librettos to be written, adapted or translated, casting and rehearsals. A lot of background work goes into what we finally see on stage, all of which can’t take place at the moment, or if it can on a very reduced scale.
If there’s one thing that opera houses and companies have shown, though, it’s that they’re able to come up with creative solutions to the very unique problems that Covid-19 has brought with it. It’s impossible to be sure how these solutions might change the ways in which we experience opera as things return to something resembling normal, but it’s worth considering.
I don’t know about you, but for me the various online offerings from theatres, opera companies and other arts organisations made a difficult year more bearable. From Zoom workshops and interviews with performers to lunchtime concerts and full operas on YouTube, there was so much to see. Outside, socially distanced performances also took place, including drive-in opera’s from the English National Opera performed at London’s Alexandra Park and Opera North’s soundwalks through Leeds city centre.
Between 24 May and 7 September, Glyndebourne Open House broadcast more than 2,500 hours of world-class opera for free on YouTube, attracting more than 840,000 views from all around the world – Australia to Bangladesh, Singapore to Senegal.
I talked to the organisation’s Director of Audience Development and Media, Richard Davidson-Houston. For him the opera house’s digital offerings were a success. “I was moved to read the reactions of the audience,” he said. “It became clear that the ability to access streamed performances was, for some, about much more than mere entertainment. We have all been tested by the virus. To have played a small part in making things more bearable feels like a success.”
These inventions were born from necessity, but many of them have benefits that extend beyond this current situation. Being able to go behind the scenes of a major opera at the Royal Opera House via a Zoom link is pretty amazing. It provides a whole level of insight that, until now, most of us have never – and would never – experienced.
Opera North took the opportunity to offer online singing lessons to anyone who was interested. Participants in From Couch to Chorus could find out their voice type and then take part in workshops aimed at their voice. The end product was a concert performed by this online choir. It was aimed at anyone from professional singers to those with no singing experience. It turned out to be so popular the company ran a special festive version over Christmas.
Making productions available on YouTube meant that they were accessible to anyone with an internet connection – no matter where they were in the world. While performers scattered across a variety of countries could get together virtually to record new music that wouldn’t have been made under normal circumstances.
None of this has been easy. Orchestras and choirs are used to rehearsing together – working off each other’s energy and ideas, interacting in any number of small but significant ways that don’t translate to the digital world.
Then there’s the technical problems of an internet connection dropping out, webcams not working, Zoom just freezing for what appears to be no reason at all, feedback from microphones. This last must be especially frustrating for opera companies and musicians.
There’s clearly much to be done if we’re going to continue using online platforms, whether that’s for meetings or rehearsals via Skype and Zoom or watching performances on YouTube. Users and creators of these services alike need to work to make the experience more accessible, more ‘human’ – we need to consider the ‘lived’ performance, both for the audience and the performers.
There’s also all those challenges relating specifically to live performance. How do you get a full orchestra together on Zoom? And then how do you virtually conduct that orchestra? How might two actors rehearse an intimate scene when they’re not just socially distanced, but in different parts of the country, or even the world?
Then you’ve got the issues of recording, often on not the best of equipment, of editing together disparate pieces of music or film. And that’s before even thinking about sets, make-up and costume …
Talking about the unique challenges of this year’s ‘Virtual Glyndebourne’, Davidson-Houston commented: “Putting together a 15-week virtual festival with no warning and while everyone was working from home was a Herculean task for the teams. My colleagues have been extraordinarily creative and gritty.
“I expect there to be continued demand for some live events. The questions will be around discovery and differentiation. What seems like a technical and operational challenge today will soon become about the end-to-end experience.”
We’re all looking forward to theatres and venues opening their doors again – is there anything sadder than a theatre gone dark? – but there’s no reason that many of the innovations brought about by the coronavirus crisis couldn’t continue. They could complement and enhance live performances.
There are so many possibilities, too. Singing classes from an opera’s principal stars, music lessons from top musicians, behind-the-scenes talks from costume designers and set builders would all add to an audience’s enjoyment and understanding of a production. Live-streaming of operas via YouTube would make the artform accessible to any number of people who have previously found it a closed-off space.
Digital offerings – which can be made available at a much lower price point – are an excellent way for audiences to test what they like. This is something I can attest to personally as I only just watched my first-ever panto (oh yes I did!). This online-only production was put together by Charles Court Opera for King’s Head Theatre and used just five performers.
Called Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown, it was funny, featured wonderful songs and great acting and was interactive, so my choices at various points in the performance helped determine what happened next. This kind of innovation wouldn’t be possible in front of a live audience and it demonstrates just how digital platforms can allow theatre to evolve.
I can access the panto as many times as I like within a certain time frame, changing my choices each time. A choose-your-own-adventure opera? Yes please! Now we just need the right writing team to create it.
Richard Davidson-Houston agrees that there is a place for digital in the future of opera. “Live streams make opera accessible to those who either cannot or may not wish to attend a theatre in person,” he concludes. “Lowering the barrier to entry and increasing accessibility is key to diversifying and engaging the audience and ensuring a healthy future for the artform.”
Director John Savournin starred as Snow White (widow of Barry) in Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown, an interactive online production which was also my first-ever panto.